A student activist in the Nashville, Tennessee, sit-in campaign of 1960, and a longtime staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Bernard Lafayette gained a reputation as a steadfast proponent of nonviolence before Martin Luther King offered him the position of program director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1967.
Lafayette was born in Tampa, Florida, on 19 July 1940. In 1958 he moved to Nashville to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary. As a freshman, Lafayette began attending weekly meetings arranged by James Lawson, a representative of the Fellowship of Reconciliation who had contacted King during the Montgomery bus boycott. Throughout 1958 and 1959, in partnership with Nashville’s SCLC affiliate, Lawson taught nonviolence techniques to Lafayette and his fellow Nashville students, including John Lewis, James Bevel, and Diane Nash. Energized by Lawson’s classes and a weekend retreat at the Highlander Folk School, Lafayette and his friends began conducting sit-ins at segregated restaurants and businesses in 1959. When Ella Baker, under the auspices of SCLC, organized a conference of students on Easter weekend in 1960, Lafayette attended this conference that gave birth to SNCC.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia declaring segregation in interstate travel facilities unconstitutional, Lafayette and Lewis integrated an interstate bus on their way home from seminary by sitting at the front and refusing to move. Months later, in 1961, he answered a Congress of Racial Equality announcement recruiting students to participate in the Freedom Rides. Although unable to join the first ride because his parents refused to permit him to participate, Lafayette and other Nashville students volunteered to continue the rides after the first group of freedom riders was attacked in Alabama. In Montgomery, Lafayette’s group was attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. King met with Lafayette, Nash, and Lewis and then negotiated on their behalf with the White House and the Department of Justice to ensure their protection in Montgomery and a military escort on their continued journey to Mississippi. In Mississippi, Lafayette was arrested and served 40 days in Parchman Penitentiary, only to be rearrested upon his release for contributing to the delinquency of minors because the students he recruited to ride the buses were all under 18 years of age.
In 1962 Lafayette became the director of SNCC’s Alabama Voter Registration Project. The following February, he and his wife, Colia, began running voter registration clinics in Selma, Alabama. In the summer of 1963, the pair was hired by the American Friends Service Committee to begin testing nonviolent methods in Chicago. When King launched SCLC’s Chicago Campaign he appointed Lafayette, still there in 1966, to help plan and execute the campaign’s direct action program.
After King hired him as SCLC’s program coordinator in 1967, Lafayette took on responsibility for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Following King’s assassination, Lafayette continued to work on the campaign with Ralph Abernathy. Lafayette received his MEd from Harvard University in 1972 and a doctorate in 1974. He served as a scholar in residence at the King Center. After teaching at several universities, he was named president of his alma mater, American Baptist Theological Seminary, in 1993. He later became the director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island.